Massive retaliation is a siren song that appeals to states that cannot afford a nuclear competition but can afford to let an adversary cross the nuclear threshold first. It’s a money-saver, and it sounds persuasive, until the threat of massive retaliation is actually tested – when a nation’s nuclear bluff is called. What national leader would actually respond to the use of a single nuclear weapon, or just a few, with massive retaliation?
Of course, a single thermonuclear weapon targeted on a major city might be considered massive retaliation when compared to the use of a low-yield, tactical nuclear weapon. Great Britain and France are postured to do far worse – one of the consequences of relying on MIRVed missiles aboard submarines – but it’s hard to imagine their bluff being called, because plausible tripwires are so remote.
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